A presentation of two sides of the complex history of eugenics: eradicating disease and improving the human race.
Comfort (History of Medicine/Johns Hopkins Univ.; The Tangled Field: Barbara McClintock's Search for the Patterns of Genetic Control, 2001) reveals the origins of the eugenics movement, beginning with the population studies begun by Darwin's cousin Francis Galton. These were picked up by British and American progressives who campaigned for “race hygiene” as a way of improving the human race. In the post–World War II era, ethical issues came to the fore as medical professionals and scientists tried to avoid “throwing out the eugenic baby with the Nazi bathwater.” As concerns about the effects of nuclear radiation mounted, researchers focused their attention on the role of mutations in causing cancer and degenerative diseases. Crick and Watson's discovery of the structure of DNA led to the unraveling of the genetic code and the mapping of the human genome, and the door opened for the development of new pharmaceuticals and the possibility of direct intervention to correct genetic diseases. Race science, which encouraged the unfit not to reproduce, could be replaced by molecular biology and the genetic engineering of plants, animals and humans. As a result, new ethical issues arose—e.g., stem cell research, cloning and genetic selection of embryos. Comfort worries that the eugenics impulse is again coming to the fore and obscuring the “power of diversity” and the “beauty of chance,” while involving humanity in a fruitless search for perfection. He suggests that by opting for technological rather than social solutions to problems, we may be blinding ourselves.
A well-balanced consideration of both the promise and problems involved in the scientific search for human betterment.